Sin Dejar Huella

“The road through Mexico.”

sindejaThe title translates as Leaving No Trace, and is entirely appropriate, since it focuses on two women who, each for their own reasons, are very keen to disappear off the grid. There’s MariLu (Sánchez-Gijón), a.k.a. Ana, a.k.a. a bunch of other names – she has three different passports – who works in the murky world of art smuggling, and is first encountered sneaking across the border from Arizona into Mexico [a nicely-ironic reversal of the usual traffic]. She is being pursued doggedly by cop Mendizábal (Ochoa), who is trailing Ana to find out who she works for. Then there’s Aurelia (Scanda), a single mom who is on the run after stealing and selling the stash of drugs her boyfriend Saul (Altomaro) was holding for the cartel, and who is on the run with the resulting cash. The pair meet up and agree to share the drive to Cancun, though neither is willing to reveal the truth about themselves. However, a red car with tinted windows is tailing them: is is Saul or Mendizábal behind the wheel?

This plays a little like a Mexican version of Thelma & Louise, although the women here begin as strangers instead of friends, and their film is as much about the growth of their relationship as the interaction with the outside world. It’s also very much a road movie, with the landscape through which they move almost another character; there are some amazing locations, such as the abandoned and derelict plantation mansion, now taken over and inhabited by the local peasants, or the near-deserted hotel in which the final act unfolds. Novaro does a great job of contrasting the grinding poverty and stunning natural beauty, and there’s an undercurrent of political subtext, with apparent nods toward NAFTA and the female homicides in Juarez. However, it is all kept light enough to teach Callie Khouri a thing or two about the benefits of subtlety and understatement.

Aurelia is likely the more sympathetic character, mainly because we know the truth about her situation – Ana appears almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth to anyone, about anything. However, the motivations and eventual goals of the women are left murky and unclear; this is a film definitely more interested in the journey, both physical and spiritual, than the destination. This is most apparent in an unsatisfactory conclusion, which zigs in one direction before inexplicably zagging back in another, without adequate explanation for either. The two pincers closing on the women do cross, only for one then apparently to meander off, as if distracted. And that’s a shame, as the film had put together a number of compelling elements and memorable sequences, including one of the more brutally realistic crashes I’ve seen [cars don’t fly, they plummet]. You should accept going in, this is much more drama than action; do that, and it’s an enjoyable enough ride, even if the final objective is rather disappointing.

Dir: Maria Novaro
Star: Tiaré Scanda, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón Jesús Ochoa, Martín Altomaro

The Serpent’s Daughter, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

serpentMany of the strengths of the first two novels in the Jade del Cameron series (which I’ve also read, and reviewed) are present in this third installment as well. However, at the end of the previous book, Stalking Ivory, Jade got a letter from her mother, inviting Jade to meet her in Tangier for a trip to Spain (to buy a stallion for the family’s New Mexico ranch). That’s the springboard for this book, which allows Arruda to introduce some new and fresh elements into the mix as well. This time, Jade is all the way across the African continent from her usual British East Africa milieu, and into a vividly-realized 1920 Morocco. Most of our usual supporting characters are left behind, and replaced by well-drawn new ones. For the first time, we get to meet Jade’s Andalusian-born mom, Dona Inez Maria Isabella de Vincente del Cameron, a strong woman in her own right and a fascinating dynamic character, and learn more about Jade’s background. This novel is as much concerned with exploring a complex, loving but fraught relationship between mother and daughter, as well as themes about being true to yourself and the possibilities of second chances and new beginnings, as it is about solving a mystery; and it gains in psychological depth as a result.

Nonetheless, there are very definitely mysteries to solve: a kidnapping, a murdered dead body that seems to be disconcertingly mobile for a corpse, the theft of an ancient amulet, and a sinister drug-smuggling operation. (Drug trafficking between Morocco and southern Europe didn’t begin in recent times, though it’s increased greatly today.) Having read the cover copy –which I don’t recommend because, IMO, it gives away too much that the readers might wish to discover on their own– I was sure I’d identified the villains in the first chapter; but I was still in the dark about some significant things, and Arruda managed to throw me a genuinely surprising curve ball I totally did not expect. I like that! Not having expected to need it in the urban setting of Tangier, Jade didn’t bring her Winchester on this trip. But she still carries a knife in her boot sheath, and her resourcefulness and skill at fisticuffs haven’t deserted her… and that’s just as well, because they’ll be sorely needed. (And where resourcefulness is concerned, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree!). Jade’s deductive abilities, as in the first book, can be a little on the slow side; but she doesn’t have to do much deduction here, and she figured out one key thing before I did.

A unique aspect of this book that I found fascinating was the detailed look at the traditional Amazigh culture of the people usually called by the appellation the ancient Greeks gave them, Berbers (from “barbarian,” the Greeks’ general term for non-Greeks –though, as one Imazighen man points out here, “It is an insult. We are not barbarians.”). There’s a rich cross-cultural flavor here, and a sense of place that’s particularly strong. All in all, this is an excellent continuation of a series that’s become a favorite of both my wife’s and mine, which does more than just run in place; it provides significant developments in the overall story arc. Now, we’re eager to continue Jade’s adventures with the fourth series installment, The Leopard’s Prey!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Sweet Home

“Hogar, dulce hogar…”

sweethomeA straightforward yet effective cross between a slasher film and Die Hard, sees Alicia (Garcia-Jonsson) plan a birthday dinner for her boyfriend, Simon (Sevilla) in an almost deserted apartment building. However, she stumbles into a plot to evict the last remaining tenant… in a body-bag. Trapped inside the locked tenement, the young couple become the target, first for the evictors, and then their boss, the Liquidator (Tarrida), as they seek to cover the tracks of their murderous work.

Three sentences, and that’s basically the entirety of the plot covered, since most of the film is an extended stalk ‘n’ slash, with Alicia, in particular, seeking a way out. It’s absolutely her story, because Simon is wounded relatively early in proceedings, and ends up close to a non-factor in proceedings – for one reason or another. Even though there’s a sense of Garcia-Jonsson acting mostly in her third language (she was born in Sweden, most of her career has been in Spain, yet her dialogue here is mainly English), it doesn’t harm the film, because Martinez is a firm believer in showing, rather than telling. That’s just what something like this needs, with gratifyingly few pauses for exposition after things kick-off. In particular, things are ramped up with the arrival of the Liquidator, who disposes of bodies with the aid of liquid nitrogen and a hammer. This is about as wince-inducing as it sounds.

As well as a fairly monstrous villain, who is quite prepared to dispatch his supposed allies if they prove more trouble than they are worth, the main appeal is seeing Alicia use her wits to survive, clambering in, around and through the maze of corridors and service passages in the building, as she tries to stay one step ahead of those hunting her down. The claustrophobic setting, enhanced by a thunderous deluge coming down outside, which has cleared the streets of everyone else, generally work for the movie too. Reading other reviews, seems I’m not the only person to detect notes of John Carpenter, with this in particular evoking feelings of Assault on Precinct 13 crossed with Halloween. Though it has been a very long while since Carpenter has directed anything as shallowly entertaining as Sweet Home.

On the other hand. the floor-plan of the house, an important factor in proceedings, seems more than a little inconsistent. This may be less an apartment building, and more a Klein bottle, for there were times when I was thought Alicia was on an upper level, only for her to open a door and suddenly be back at ground level. However, if you’re prepared to let that aspect slide, along with the occasional moments of less-than-sensible behaviour (almost inevitable, given the genre), this is an energetic and enthusiastic romp, which will likely have you quoting various John McClane-isms over the course of proceedings. But it’s safe to say that Die Hard did not end in a climax which had Bruce Willis in the basement, unconscious, dotted lines drawn on his limbs, in preparation for easy separation by Alan Rickman and his hacksaw. More’s the pity, perhaps.

Dir: Rafa Martínez
Star: Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson, Bruno Sevilla, Oriol Tarrida, Jose Maria Blanco

Skirt Day

“Those kids became my enemies.”

skirrtdayGuaranteed to put anyone off education as a career, this stars Gallic sex-kitten from the 80’s, Isabelle Adjani, now all middle-aged and playing French literature teacher Sonia Bergerac. whose career has devolved into hell – hence the line atop this review. She’s teaching a teenage class who, virtually without exception, clearly don’t want to be there, when she finds a gun in one of their bags. A struggle erupts, and when the dust settles, Sonia has the gun, a student is lying on the floor with a bullet-wound, and a siege situation has begun. On the outside, police negotiator Labouret (Podalydès) is having a bad day himself, trying to avoid a blood-bath, while his political masters try to spin news of the unexpected hostage crisis. But inside the theater, Sonia finds that it’s not just political power that grows from the barrel of a gun: she hasn’t ever had pupils pay such impeccable attention to her lessons before…

Made in 2009, this has, if anything become even more topical in the light of the refugee crisis which has become a hot-button issue in Europe of late. For this pulls few punches in its criticism of those who adopt politically-correct policies, simply to avoid trouble with minorities. The title refers to one of Sonia’s unusual demands, a day that women can wear skirts without the risk of harassment by political or religious conservatives, and writer-director Lilienfeld is also scathing in his criticism of immigrants who don’t integrate into their new homeland (a later reveal indicates it’s the latter aspect which is most important), as well as, it appears, yelling at local kids to get off his damn lawn. It is almost certainly the case that aspects of this will make more sense to a local audience; viewers outside France have to work backwards from what’s presented, to read Lilienfeld’s view of French society, rather than the other way around. However, he is also careful not to paint the pupils with a single brush: some are every bit as aggrieved with the status quo of appeasement as Sonia – and, arguably, with greater justification.

It’s not a film without its problems. The exterior scenes don’t have anything like the same impact, and the end feels almost like the director ran out of things to say, and opted for the simplest way to tie up all the loose ends, regardless of how abrupt it might seem. But it’s still genuinely thought-provoking – not something we find often in our genre here – and even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything Lilienfeld has to say, he deserves respect for saying it in a reasonable way. Adjani, who largely came out of retirement to make this, does a great job: the scenario sounds kinda silly, yet largely through her portrayal of a woman at the absolute end of her rope, it becomes plausible enough to work. Hard to imagine anything like this coming out of Hollywood, that’s for sure.

Dir: Jean-Paul Lilienfeld
Star: Isabelle Adjani, Denis Podalydès, Yann Ebonge, Sonia Amori
a.k.a. La Journée de la jupe

Super Cops

“Less a review, more of a warning.”

supercopsNot, in any way, to be confused with Jackie Chan/Michelle Yeoh vehicle Super Cop, this one barely has enough action heroine content to qualify here, despite the presence of both Khan and Oshima, who must have been in Taiwan for the weekend or something, and agreed to take on roles of a local cop and a Japanese Interpol agent respectively. Despite a feisty misunderstanding when they first meet, Khan mistaking Oshima for a thief, this is much more about brother and sister Siu-Tong and Chee-Loy, who head to the big city in search of their uncle. They end up getting work in a restaurant, except this brings them into conflict with the local gangsters – fortunately, the brother is kinda good at kicking ass, and this leads to ever-increasing waves of thugs descending on the eating establishment. Really, you wonder why anyone goes there to eat, since it seems barely five minutes goes by without the need to order replacement glass-topped tables.

Meanwhile, Khan and Oshima are seeking to trap heroine dealer Billy Chow, and the two plot strands, which have been so disparate I was seriously thinking this was a pair of films edited together on Godfrey Ho’s day off, finally converge. This happens at an open-air banquet celebrating Chow’s birthday, to which all the characters are somehow invited. Hey, look! More tables through, over and into which people can be hurled! The action is okay in quality – there’s some scampering around a train at the opening which looks genuinely dangerous – yet severely deficient in quantity. Instead, a lot of the running time consists of more or less blatant padding, such as the brother dressing up in drag to ensnare his boss at the restaurant. It’ll have you yearning for the subtle comedic stylings of Benny Hill.

There’s not much point in saying more: I wasted enough time watching this, and don’t feel you should have to waste time too, as I struggle toward the usual word count. Just know that this one is for Khan and Oshima completists only, and even they will find little here worthy of their attention. There’s certainly absolutely nothing super about it.

Dir: Chiang-Bang Mao
Star: Chia-Hui Liu, Ka-Kui Ho, Cynthia Khan, Yukari Ôshima
a.k.a. Huo tou da jiang jun

The Sleeping Partner, by Madeleine E.Robins

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

sleepAt the age of 16, the intelligent and spirited daughter of a country baronet, Sarah Brereton –the girl who would become the Sarah Tolerance that series fans know and admire– fell deeply in love with her brother’s fencing instructor, and he with her. (For modern readers, it’s important to recognize that in that day, teens were expected to mature and become responsible early; 16-year-old girls might well be married. So this wasn’t some sort of sick, pedophilic situation; Sarah was a young woman with the passion and impetuousness of youth, but in her society she was a woman, not a child, and Charles Connell was a normal, decent male.) Because of the class difference and paternal opposition, though, this relationship didn’t lead to a happy engagement and marriage, but to a hasty flight to the Continent, with Sarah disgraced, disowned by her family, and consigned to permanent Fallen Woman status. (Fallen men in her culture didn’t suffer any similar opprobrium.)

Like many people in that pre-antibiotic era, Connell died young, leaving her in effect a widow without ever having technically been a wife. Now, some 12 years later (we’re up to April, 1811 in this volume), she’s living in London under an assumed name, to spare her family from embarrassment. To support herself without resorting to the usual expedient of prostitution (friendless and helpless women in that environment being, pretty much invariably, sexually exploited women), she’s created the profession of “agent of inquiry” –a private investigator, in our parlance– for herself, putting her unique abilities to use. She’s smart, inquisitive, brave, able to move in a range of social circles and to pass for a man when she needs to, well trained by Connell in the use of a sword, and not afraid to pack and use a pistol. (In this volume, the level of violence in her physical altercations is again dialed down to the one-star level; but her weapons do come out, and she can definitely defend herself with aplomb.)

Her latest client is a young married woman, who desperately wants Sarah to find and rescue the lady’s 16-year-old younger sister (daughter of a peer), who’s disappeared, leaving behind a note indicating that she’s eloped with an unnamed lover. Obviously, this case stirs some very deep-seated feelings for Sarah. It will get more personal and wrenching, rather than less, as she investigates. And series fans won’t be surprised that there’s more to the mystery than at first meets the eye.

Many of my general comments on the preceding two books of the series apply to this one as well. Robins’ prose style and characterizations are as fine as ever; not just Sarah, but all of the characters (good and bad) are thoroughly real people whom we like, pity or detest. (Some are old friends from the earlier books, some are newly met.) The period flavor is as rich and rewarding as ever. (As usual, a concluding “Note on History, Faux and Real” explains the historical background, and where the author’s slightly alternate world diverges from ours in a few details.) Considering the kind of case our heroine is investigating, and the fact that she lives in a cottage behind her (also Fallen –“the black ewe of her generation”) aunt’s high-class brothel and has a prostitute for a close friend, sexual content here is relatively minimal. We also get a glimpse here of Sarah in church, which helps to deepen her character. Like many people of that day –including Jane Austen herself, a writer whose influence Robins readily admits– she doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, but it’s there, to a lot greater extent than some of the more ostentatiously pious might give her credit for. (Then and now, many of the latter tend to forget that a Christian society has to be, first and foremost, a community of forgiveness.) And the volume isn’t simply treading water in terms of the development of the series; there’s significant growth and change in relationships here.

Why, then, only four stars, when the two previous books got five? For only one reason. Here, in the resolution/explanation of the skullduggery at the heart of events, there’s one major logical contradiction (which is impossible to explain without a spoiler). Robins papers it over without any real explanation (and it’s possible she actually didn’t recognize it herself!), but because it’s central to the resolution of the book, I had to reluctantly deduct a star for it. But it’s still a great read!

A couple of notes are relevant on the way words were used differently in 1811 than today. First, a clergyman here is said to be “Unitarian.” Today’s “Unitarians” are somewhat similar to the “Deists” of Sarah’s day (except that most today would be even more skeptical, and less willing to accept a label of Christian, or even of theistic). “Unitarians” in Sarah’s world, however (like the slightly later March family in Little Women) were what are sometimes called “Biblical Unitarians,” holding orthodox views on the atonement and the authority of Scripture, and definitely not Deists –in other words, much more conservative than the term suggests today. Second, the word “whore” is used in these books simply as the normal word for what we would today call a prostitute. Obviously, it was an inherently insulting term to apply to a woman who was NOT in that trade, but for those who were, it didn’t have any particularly insulting connotation; the girls themselves used it as a normal self-designation. No speaker today would use it, even to a woman who is a sex worker, without a deliberate intention to hurt and demean; but in 1811, there generally is no such intention (and usually no such effect).

This is the latest Sarah Tolerance book to date –published in 2011, seven years after the previous one. It isn’t clear whether Robins intends to continue the series past this point. If not, there are features to this volume that could make it a satisfactory conclusion to what will then be a trilogy. But if the author does ever intend, in the future, to visit Sarah’s London again, I and I’m sure a goodly number of other fans will eagerly come along for the ride!

Author: Madeleine E. Robins
Publisher: Plus One Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Sweet Revenge

“More sour than sweet.”

sweet-revengeAh, the eighties. A time of big guns and even bigger hair, going by this underwhelming entry, which sees Allen as feisty and well-lacquered reporter Jillian Grey, who gets too close to the white slaving operation run by Mr. Cicero (Landau). [Even though he operates out of the Philippines, he’s still kidnapping girls out of bars in Los Angeles, which seems logistically inefficient, shall we say] She is abducted and offered for sale, only to break out of the auction with a couple of other American girls – the non-Caucasians are, it appears, left to their own survival – pausing only to rescue international perfume smuggler, Boone (Shackelford). Believing Cicero has also kidnapped her daughter, Jillian convinces Boone to join her and the girls in an attack on the white slaver’s compound – but to get the necessary weapons for that, they’ll first have to help out his outlaw friend, Buddha.

Shudderingly uneven in tone, this would have worked much better if the makers had figured out whether they were going for Romancing the Stone style hi-jinks or New World Pictures exploitation, because what we get here doesn’t work as either. The problem with the former is Boone, who demonstrates the thin line between endearing and irritating, falling firmly on the latter side, as the result of Shackleford’s painful lack of charisma and acting talent. The latter, meanwhile, is defused by the almost complete lack of nudity; save one bit of skinny-dipping, the rest of the film would likely merit a PG these days. There’s lots of running around with automatic weapons, of course, and an energetic amount of things being blown up, plus you get Gershon in what may well be her first feature role, apparently knowing martial arts and making far more of an impression than Shackleford. You can certainly see why, almost 20 years later, she’s still working and he isn’t.

Indeed, the film as a whole would be significantly improved if Boone was removed entirely, and the film concentrated solely on Grey and her sidekicks, even if the whole subplot about the heroine’s daughter is half-baked at best. Just have that happy-go-lucky trio going up against Cicero and his gang of (fortunately, incapable of aiming) goons, and you could have something looking like a better-financed version of an Andy Sidaris film. Though admittedly, you would need some more gratuitous hot-tub action as well, before it would reach that level. Instead, you have something trying to be too many things and appealing to too many audiences, instead ending up as a film which is no better than “somewhat satisfactory” for just about anyone.

Dir: Mark Sobel
Star: Nancy Allen, Ted Shackelford, Gina Gershon, Martin Landau


“Worthy, rather than worthwhile”

suffragetteI generally find that films based on historical events, which also feel the need to make up entirely fictional characters, occupy a bit of an awkward middle-ground, as if they want both to be documentary and drama. Such is the case here, with a somewhat clumsy combination of  people who actually existed, such as suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison, who was fatally injured in a protest at the 1913 Derby, with an entirely made-up heroine, Maud Watts (Mulligan). She works in an East End laundry, but become part of the burgeoning movement to win women the vote, after her trip to the House of Parliament, in support of a colleague testifying there, turns into Maud having to speak on behalf of her friend. As Maud’s commitment to the cause grows, she is jailed, her marriage breaks down and she loses custody of her son, but remains unwavering in her support. Indeed, she becomes more militant, alongside chemist Edith Ellyn (Bonham-Carter), with the group moving into more hardcore methods of protest.

I can’t argue with the performances here, which are, almost without exception, upper-tier stuff: Mulligan’s transition from laundry lady into crypto-terrorist is particularly well-handled, bringing the audience on the journey of enlightenment with her. The problems are more elsewhere. That this is based on history – and well-known history at that – means there is precisely zero tension here. We know they’re going to end up getting the vote – though it didn’t happen, on even the most limited terms, until after the Great War, years after the events depicted here. So scenes like the protest at Parliament, where David Lloyd-George announces there will be no change in the law, and Maud is arrested for the first time, have little or no impact. The script also borders on the misanthropic: between abusive husbands, an abusive boss and a police officer (Gleeson) devoted to bringing the movement down, there is literally not a sympathetic male character to be found here, except perhaps Edith’s husband, who is so bland and uninteresting, you’ll forget him entirely.

The film climaxes with the events of that Derby Day, and again, the impact is diluted since we know it’s going to end in Davison’s death (the question of how intentional or accidental it was remains unanswered; naturally, the film frames it as an act of heroic martyrdom). The movie ends in newsreel footage of the subsequent funeral, without giving Maud any particular closure, and she just happens to be nearby at the time, a fortunate observer to a pivotal moment in history. A few captions fill in the blanks, and everyone heads off for a nice cup of tea. For it’s all terribly British, mostly replacing righteous anger with polite indignation, and despite Mulligan and her crew acting their crinolines off, is only somewhat successful at capturing the passionate beliefs that I sense these women actually held.

Dir: Sarah Gavron
Star: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff


“Not sponsored by the Mexican Tourist Board.”

sicarioThis has no small element of local resonance, kicking off in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler (albeit filmed in New Mexico!), where an FBI raid on a house uncovers dozens of bodies in the wall and a booby-trapped basement, all the results of the Mexican cartels encroaching on the United States. In the aftermath, lead agent Kate Macer (Blunt) is invited to join a group working to take down the mobsters responsible, in particular cartel boss Fausto Alarcón. To that end, she joins a force that heads across the border to Juarez, and extradite one of his associates, and then begins a plan to prod the gang’s leader in America, Manuel Diaz, into returning to Mexico for a meeting with Alarcón. Heading the force are CIA “advisor” Matt Graver (Brolin) and the even more shady Alejandro Gillick (del Toro), who has extremely personal reasons for wanting Alarcón brought to justice. Neither have quite the same attention to… procedural detail, shall we say, as Macer, and she soon discovers her new partners will go to absolutely any ends to achieve their goals.

I’m just glad we saw this before going on holiday to Rocky Point, because between this and the documentary Cartel Land (as well as Backyard), we’ve crossed Mexico off our travel plans for the foreseeable future. Hell, Tucson is now looking a bit dubious. For it doesn’t exactly paint a glowing picture of American’s southern ally: even the cops are as likely to be gangsters as anything, and brutal violence is a casual part of everyday life. It’s a setting where, the film seems to be saying, you have to be every bit as brutal if you’re going to go against the cartels, and Macer’s high belief in “justice” is portrayed as idealistic and innocent to the point of naivety, when contrasted with the unflinching savagery of the opposition. Indeed, for much of the second half, she’s little more than a place-holder, present solely so the CIA and their assets can continue to operate with official sanction. The film becomes much more about Graver and Gillick, and the final mission sees the heroine taken out of action entirely, when her presence is no longer needed.

However, up until then, Villeneuve delivers tension by the truckload, during the opening raid, and in particular during the extradition raid to Mexico, when potential threats lurk absolutely everywhere. It had us growing very familiar with the edge of our seats for a lengthy period, and I’m feeling a bit more optimistic about the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, which Villeneuve is also directing. I’d rather have seen more of a character arc from Macer, perhaps buying further into participating in the grey-area methods of her associates, instead of becoming a bench player in what I was expecting to be her own story, and that’s why it falls short of getting unqualified approval here. However, as a grim action-thriller that pulls no punches in its depiction of the (probably unwinnable) drug war, it checks of all the necessary boxes and achieves its goals.

Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Star: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2

screamingstaircaseThis opening installment of the author’s Lockwood and Company series is a brisk-paced tale with easily flowing prose that would be a quick read for most folks. It’s a novel that will appeal to fans of the supernatural, as well as of feisty heroines.

Technically, this could be called fantasy, since it’s set in an alternate England. Aside from the Problem and its ramifications, the setting is much like the real world. (I originally thought it might be supposed to be our world, decades into the future, but a reference to capital punishment existing in England at the time of a 50-year-old murder precluded that idea.) But the ramifications of the Problem are big. For half a century, ghostly apparitions have become VERY common in England (it’s not said whether that’s true in the rest of the world), and universally recognized as real.

The ghostly Visitors aren’t always malevolent; but they can be, and their touch can kill. Curfews keep people indoors at night, iron and other charms are commonly used to ward buildings and people, and agencies that deal with apparitions are respected and profitable. But though most agencies are run and supervised by adults, only some children gifted with the sensitivity can see, hear or sense ghosts directly; and they lose this sensitivity as they become adults. So the field operatives of these agencies are tweens and teens; well-paid for their work, but subject to lethal danger all the same. Lockwood and Co. is atypical in not having adult supervisors; the teen owner and his two associates (one of whom is our narrator, Lucy Carlyle) are on their own.

This brings us to one point that’s admittedly unrealistic. I don’t mean the idea that society would countenance putting minors in harm’s way. If that’s what it took to handle something like the Problem, politicians and pundits who now wax eloquent about protecting children and the merits of child labor laws would hesitate about one nanosecond (if that). But it’s not likely that they’d tolerate three teens living together on their own and running their own business. True, Lockwood’s an orphan. But he’d been “in care” at one time, and I can’t see them voluntarily letting him out of it. Lucy’s a runaway, though not without some reason; and the fact that her Talent made her the main breadwinner for her mother and sister would give the former a big incentive to want her back. (Her cavalier abandonment of her family is the one blot on her character for me; I can see leaving, but not just abandoning without a goodbye or any further thought or contact.) We don’t know where George’s parents are; they’re not even mentioned.

This is Stroud’s way of freeing his teen characters to act on their own without adult guidance, and let his teen readers vicariously fantasize about being free to have their own adventures and show the mettle they think ((sometimes with a basis!) that they have, even if adults don’t agree. It’s certainly a conceptual flaw in the premise, though. (Like Ilona Andrews in her Kate Daniels series, he also doesn’t deal with the massive revolutionary social and ideological implications that a cultural admission that the supernatural is real would have.) But I still found this a great read!

With its teen characters, this is marketed as a YA novel. In keeping with that, it has no sex, hardly any bad language, and no wallowing in ultra-grisly or gross violence (though the feeling of danger is very real). But it’s not in any sense a dumbed-down or pablum read; it’s a quality work, which can easily command the appreciation of adult readers. Stroud delivers a well-constructed plot, excellently drawn main characters whom you readily like (with the single caveat above) and root for, and a style that’s about as pitch-perfect as one could ask for. The tone is mostly serious, and the author is one of the best I’ve read at evoking a menacing Gothic atmosphere in the right places. (If you’re a buff of haunted house yarns, you owe it to yourself to “visit” Combe Carey Hall –vicariously, with the light on.)

But he also knows when to insert a light leavening of humor, and the interactions of his three teens are as real-seeming as they come. Lucy has a great narrative voice. I classified her as an action heroine based on how she handles herself here in life-threatening physical challenges that demand guts, speed, and agility, although the foes she’s combatting aren’t flesh-and-blood humans. Intensely romance-allergic readers can take note that there’s none of THAT here –though I could imagine Lucy and Lockwood as a couple in a few years. And Lockwood’s a smart, resourceful, capable hero, in the psychic detective mold.

Bottom line: this is good, clean supernatural fiction, as it’s meant to be! I think most readers of that genre will eat it up with a spoon.

Author: Jonathan Stroud
Publisher: Doubleday, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.